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Monday, April 02, 2007

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part II

Wilt Chamberlain had the ultimate peak value season in 1961-62, averaging 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg. Chamberlain shot .506 from the field (ranking second in the league) and averaged an astounding 48.5 minutes per game; since a regulation NBA game lasts only 48 minutes, he literally played nearly every second of every game, including some overtime action. His scoring and minutes played averages are all-time records that will never be broken, while his rebounding average is the third best ever, exceeded only by two earlier Chamberlain seasons.

The next best single season scoring average is 44.8 ppg, posted by Chamberlain in 1962-63. The next best after that is 38.4 ppg, posted by Chamberlain in 1960-61. The next best after that is—well, you get the point. There is a reason that someone once suggested that the NBA Record Book should be renamed “The Wilt Chamberlain Story.” Chamberlain posted the top four single season scoring averages in NBA history. The non-Chamberlain record is Michael Jordan’s 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. Chamberlain’s 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors scored 125.4 ppg in a league in which teams averaged 118.8 ppg, while Jordan’s 1986-87 Bulls produced 104.8 ppg when teams averaged 109.9 ppg. Some observers suggest that Chamberlain’s scoring average is inflated by the faster “pace” of his era. Mathematically, this makes some sense; after all, the more shot attempts there are per game, the more opportunities a player will have to score. To cite an extreme example, when the NBA did not have a shot clock and teams routinely scored less than 85 points there was very little chance that someone would average 50 ppg for a season.

Yet, to simply crunch a few numbers and declare that Jordan’s 37.1 ppg is somehow approximately equal to Chamberlain’s 50.4 ppg flies in the face of logic. Regardless of the overall pace of the game, Chamberlain still had to continue to keep pace, so to speak, to average 50.4 ppg. No one else in his era—or any other time—has come close to doing this. Jordan’s 37.1 ppg may “project” to a higher average in 1961-62, but who is to say that the faster pace would not have fatigued Jordan or led to wear and tear that would have predisposed him to injury? Maybe the slower pace in 1986-87 would have suited Chamberlain even better and made it harder for teams to defend him. Without having to run up and down the court so frequently to get back on defense perhaps Chamberlain would have been more energized, while his opponents would have been worn down by the pounding they took trying to stop him in the paint; maybe a young Chamberlain would have scored 55 or 60 ppg in 1986-87. Let’s be clear—I’m not saying that this is what would have happened; I’m saying that I don’t know and neither does anyone else. It makes just as much sense to hypothesize that a slower pace would help Chamberlain as it does to “standardize” his numbers downward. All that we know for a fact is that Chamberlain scored 50.4 ppg and in nearly six decades of NBA action no one else has come close to matching that. Showing that Chamberlain and Jordan’s scoring production is mathematically equivalent when pace is considered is not the same as proving that Jordan would have in fact scored 50.4 ppg in 1961-62 or that Chamberlain would have been “held” to 37.1 ppg in 1986-87.

Standardization is much more useful for comparing players who played in the same era but for different teams than it is for comparing players across eras. To compare players across eras there has to be some way to account for differences in rules, officiating (how the written rules are interpreted and applied), talent (does the current era feature more talented athletes drawn from a wider, more international talent pool or has expansion diluted the talent today in comparison with earlier eras when the NBA only had 90-100 players?) and a myriad of other factors both great and small. Until someone explains how these factors can be accurately measured statistically, Chamberlain’s 1961-62 season is without question the ultimate example of peak value—he set the all-time single season scoring and minutes played records by wide margins while also having the third best rebounding season ever and ranking second in the league in field goal percentage. The fact that Chamberlain’s main competition in the record book in the single season scoring, rebounding and minutes played categories comes from other Chamberlain seasons highlights even more the greatness of his accomplishment in 1961-62—he set the bar so high that he is the only player who could even come close to it.

Shaquille O’Neal is often referred to—and often refers to himself—as a modern day Wilt Chamberlain, so the reader may be interested to see O’Neal’s best single season numbers in scoring, rebounding and minutes played: 29.7 ppg (1999-00), 13.9 rpg (1992-93) and 40.0 mpg (1999-00); obviously, none of those numbers are even close to Chamberlain’s 1961-62 production—and O’Neal posted those statistics in different seasons. Standardization proponents will vigorously argue that O’Neal is at a tremendous disadvantage in the rebounding category because today’s game features a slower pace than Chamberlain’s era did. Again, mathematically this makes a lot of sense, but great players in any era seem to operate under their own statistical rules. No rebounding champion averaged 16-plus rpg between 1979-80 and 1990-91—then Dennis Rodman accomplished this in four straight seasons. Judging by pace alone it would not have seemed possible to do this, but Rodman did, in the process far exceeding the production of the other top rebounders at that time. In Chamberlain’s last season he led the NBA with 18.6 rpg, 1.5 rpg better than the second place finisher in a league in which the average team scored 107.6 ppg on .456 shooting. Are we to believe that a younger Chamberlain playing in 1972-73 would not have been able to average 25+ rpg, regardless of pace? When Rodman averaged 18.7 rpg in 1991-92 the average NBA team scored 105.3 ppg on .472 field goal shooting.

Chamberlain’s durability is unparalleled. He won seven straight scoring titles, nine field goal percentage titles, 11 rebounding titles and averaged at least 21.1 rpg in each of his first ten seasons. Chamberlain never fouled out of a game despite playing more than 3300 minutes in every season of his career except for 1969-70, when a knee injury limited him to 12 games; that year he confounded doctors’ predictions by returning in time for the playoffs, appearing in all 18 of the Lakers’ playoff games while averaging 22.1 ppg, 22.2 rpg and 4.5 apg in 47.3 mpg—yet what is remembered most about that season is Willis Reed limping onto the court in game seven of the NBA Finals and scoring four points. Reed’s effort, which his teammates have said inspired them to win the championship, should not be diminished, but Chamberlain deserves more recognition than he received for his return to action and high level of productivity in that postseason.

When Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg during the 1961-62 season Oscar Robertson also had a “peak value” season, becoming the first and only NBA player to average a triple double for a season: 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg. Robertson led the league in assists in 1961-62 while ranking third in points and eighth in rebounds (NBA single season statistical leaders were determined by totals—not averages—until 1969-70). The only three other players who have led the league in one of those categories while ranking in the top ten in the other two in the same season are Hall of Fame big men who were also great passers: George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Wilt Chamberlain. No guard other than Robertson has ever done this. In 1967-68, Chamberlain led the NBA in rebounding and assists and ranked third in scoring, which is the closest any player has ever come to leading the league in all three categories in the same season.

Robertson’s triple-double accomplishments actually are a hybrid of peak value and durability, because he averaged a triple double overall for his first five NBA seasons: 30.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 10.6 apg. He led the league in assists in four of those five years and narrowly missed averaging a triple double in 1963-64, when he won his only MVP award (31.4 ppg, 11.0 apg, 9.9 rpg). Some writers attempt to diminish Robertson’s triple doubles by saying that rebounds were a lot more plentiful in his era, due to a faster pace and lower shooting percentages. Standardization suggests that Robertson’s double digit rebounding averages should be downgraded significantly. The problem that I have with this kind of analysis is that, again, while it makes some sense when looked at purely from a mathematical standpoint, it unfairly impacts Robertson from a historical standpoint. No one else has averaged a triple double for a season or put together aggregate triple double averages for a five season period; to reduce Robertson’s rebounding numbers without noting this distorts history more than it enlightens us. Standardizing the statistics of players who competed at the same time but for different teams makes a lot more sense than suggesting that 10 rebounds in Robertson’s era equals 8 in later times. Robertson actually grabbed those 10 rebounds and there is no way to know if he would have gotten 8, 10 or 12 at a different time against different opponents playing under different rules.

Of course, no one really talked about triple doubles when Robertson played; the term came into vogue to describe Magic Johnson’s feats in the 1980s. If Robertson had actually thought about producing triple doubles and made sure to get an extra rebound or assist here or there, he certainly could have had a lot more of them. Robertson will also be quick to mention that the standard for awarding an assist is a lot more lenient today than it was when he played. An assist is supposed to be a pass that leads directly to a basket; if the player receiving the ball does not make an immediate move to score, if he makes multiple fakes and/or dribbles, an assist should not be granted, even though it often seems to be nowadays. So, while Robertson may believe that he would have been granted more assists if he played today and numbers crunchers think that he may have gotten fewer rebounds in this era, the fact is that his 1961-62 triple-double season is an unmatched benchmark for basketball versatility. No professional basketball player has ever excelled to that extent in each category in the same year.

Part III will look at the accomplishments of Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving.

Links:

1) Part I of this series can be found here.

2) This article adapts and slightly modifies ideas that I first explored in the following two posts:

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II

3) The NBA 50th Anniversary Team, including the list of voters and links to biographies of each player:

http://www.nba.com/history/players/50greatest.html

posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 PM

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